- Former Jackson County Deputy Zachary Wester was arrested and charged with 52 counts related to pulling over drivers, planting drugs like meth on them, and arresting them.
- Nearly 120 cases involving Wester have been dropped, and more are being reviewed.
- While some victims are pleased with the charges, many others who served time or received probation because of his actions feel that the damage is already done.
- In one case, a victim lost custody of a child, and in another, a victim was forced to serve a year in rehab.
Former Jackson County Deputy Zachary Wester was arrested and charged Wednesday for pulling over drivers for minor traffic infractions, planting drugs on them, and then booking them for possession.
According to a statement from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE), Wester was arrested on “felony charges of racketeering, official misconduct, fabricating evidence, possession of a controlled substance and false imprisonment.”
This morning, FDLE arrested former Jackson County Sheriff’s Office deputy Zachary Wester on a litany of charges, including racketeering, fabricating evidence, and false imprisonment. #arresthttps://t.co/9McYv4FT6G pic.twitter.com/fkO1oRcJCs— FDLE (@fdlepio) July 10, 2019
He was also charged with “misdemeanor perjury, possession of a controlled substance and possession of drug paraphernalia,” the statement said. Together, Wester faces a total of 52 separate charges.
It is unclear how much prison time he could get. The Washington Post reported that State Attorney William Eddins, who oversaw the case, told reporters Wester could face up to 30 years.
The Tallahassee Democrat said that the racketeering charge alone has a max penalty of 30 years, and the other felonies have max sentences of five years.
However, they also reported Eddins saying that under Florida’s sentencing guidelines, Wester would only face 13 and a half years if found guilty on all charges, noting that a judge could give him more.
While Wester was only arrested on Wednesday, the charges against him came as part of a nearly year-long investigation.
Wester was reportedly hired by the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office in 2016. In August 2018, the Sheriff’s Office asked the FDLE to launch an internal investigation into his conduct after a prosecutor found inconsistencies between his reports and what was captured on his body camera.
Specifically, prosecutors said he turned his body camera off most of the time, and only turned it back on after he had already found the drugs in the vehicles he was searching.
Additionally, in most cases, Wester would pull someone over for a minor traffic infraction and then ask them if he smelled marijuana, which would give him probable cause to search their car.
Despite the fact that Wester would write in his reports that he smelled or thought he saw marijuana, he would usually turn his camera back on to show he found meth.
Even in cases where the people he pulled over actually were suspected of crimes or admitted to having marijuana in the car, Wester still planted the meth, according to the affidavit.
As a result of the investigation, Wester was suspended on Aug. 1 and then fired a month later. Prosecutors said they would not file charges until the FDLE investigation was complete.
The investigation took a while because there was a lot of evidence to review. According to the FDLE statement, during the investigation, their agents, “analyzed over 1,300 minutes of recorded video and logged over 1,400 working hours on the case.”
In that footage, the investigators found one of the few instances where he kept his body camera on during a search.
In that incident, Wester had pulled over a woman named Teresa Odom, claiming her brake lights were not working properly.
In the bodycam footage, Wester is seen holding something that looks like a small plastic bag in his hand. He then puts his hand out of view under the driver’s seat and returns it without the baggy.
Wester later booked Odom for possessing meth.
According to the Tallahassee Democrat, deputies who searched Wester’s patrol car during the investigation found “42 pieces of drug paraphernalia, ten baggies of methamphetamine and five baggies of marijuana concealed in an unmarked and unsecured evidence bag in the trunk.”
The Tallahassee Democrat also reported that prosecutors reviewed nearly 300 cases that involved Wester, and dropped the charges in nearly 120 cases, including Odom’s.
However, Eddins said that there was no evidence that Wester planted drugs or fabricated arrests in all of the cases, and noted that the charges are based on his arrests of 11 known victims named in an affidavit, though there might be more.
“Our investigation is ongoing,” he told reporters Wednesday. “There’s a substantial amount of work to be done. But I have no belief that there’s anywhere near 100 victims. We may have identified most of the victims, we may (have) not.”
“There is no question that Wester’s crimes were deliberate and that his actions put innocent people in jail,” Chris Williams, the FDLE Assistant Special Agent in Charge of the case said in a statement.
Though many cases have now been dismissed, for a lot of people, it is too little too late.
In 2017, a man named Benjamin Bowling lost custody of his daughter after he was convicted on felony charges for possessing meth that Wester said he found in his car.
At the time, Bowling had been released from prison a few months earlier and was being drug tested. Bowling also reportedly requested that the Sheriff’s Office turn over the bodycam footage and test the drugs for DNA and fingerprints, but they never did.
The same year, a man named Jeffrey Helms and his girlfriend April Middleton were also pulled over by Wester and arrested for possessing meth.
Middleton reportedly was in jail for a few weeks before being released, but Helms, who had prior charges, was sentenced to 18 months in prison.
Unfortunately, that is not even where the damage Wester did to the Helms family stops. Jeffrey Helms’ sister-in-law Erika Helms told the Tallahassee Democrat in September that her own brother was also arrested by Wester for possessing meth.
Although his charges were dropped after Wester’s arrest, it was not done until after he was forced to spend a year in residential rehab.
“He’s ruined lives,” Erika Helms told the Tallahassee Democrat. “People are losing their lives, their freedom, their children, their marriages — all because of this one man. It’s not just innocent men. It’s innocent children. It goes a lot deeper than everyone realizes.”
See what others are saying: (The Tallahassee Democrat) (The Washington Post) (Fox News)
Journalists Say Northwestern School Paper Should Not Have Apologized for Protest Coverage
- A Northwestern student paper apologized after activists critiqued it for covering a public protest.
- Critics specifically focused on a reporter who tweeted photos from the protest, and other reporters using the school’s directory to contact sources.
- Several outlets and journalists have spoken up saying student reporters should not have apologized for doing their jobs, as they were just doing what was required to cover the protest.
- The Dean of Northwestern’s Journalism School has also defended the student reporters, saying they were following ethical standards and should not have to apologize for that.
Northwestern Paper Publishes Apology
Reporters are speaking out after a Northwestern University student newspaper apologized for how it covered a recent public protest.
When former Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke at the school’s campus on November 5, The Daily Northwestern sent reporters to cover his speech, as well as the protests surrounding it.
According to The New York Times, protesters were pushing through the back of the building. Police tried to stop them from entering but ultimately failed. This series of events was documented by one of the reporters, Colin Boyle, who is a photographer for The Daily.
Some of the activists attending the protest disagreed with the paper’s coverage of the events, particularly the photography. Boyle posted his photos to Twitter in a move some found to be inappropriate. One student depicted in the photos referred to it as “trauma porn.”
After facing this backlash from protesters, The Daily published an editorial on Sunday largely apologizing for their coverage.
“We recognize that we contributed to the harm students experienced, and we wanted to apologize for and address the mistakes that we made that night — along with how we plan to move forward,” the piece, signed by eight editors said.
They also noted that some saw the photos taken to be “retraumatizing and invasive.”
“Those photos have since been taken down,” the editorial continued. “On one hand, as the paper of record for Northwestern, we want to ensure students, administrators and alumni understand the gravity of the events that took place Tuesday night. However, we decided to prioritize the trust and safety of students who were photographed.”
The piece also addressed student reporters using the student directory to contact sources for the article. They said they would no longer continue this practice because it is an “invasion of privacy” and promised to find a new way to reach out to sources.
“Going forward, we are working on setting guidelines for source outreach, social media and covering marginalized groups,” the piece said.
Reporters Speak Out
This editorial ended up getting attention on both a local and national level. News outlets and journalists alike made comments saying that the student paper should not have published this piece because the student journalists were just doing their job.
“The Daily is apologizing for posting photographs of protesters at a public demonstration. In what world is that “invasive?” the Chicago Sun-Times‘ editorial board said. “The real concern, for anybody who cares about the state of our free society, should be quite the opposite. The real concern should be the frequent efforts by government to keep journalists and protesters far apart to tamp down voices of dissent.”
They also defended students using the directory as a method to contact sources.
“Requesting an interview, via text or any other polite means, is not an ‘invasion of privacy.’ Not even in the world of campus safe spaces,” the piece continued. “It’s a request for an interview, to which anybody can say no.”
“It was sort of grovelingly apologetic for doing the sin of journalism,” he said. “They committed journalism by asking questions of students, contacting students for comment, publishing on the record quotes from people, and taking photographs of a public protest from a public event. And that is all just totally proper.”
A Huffington Post news editor, Saba Hamedy, approached the situation from a sympathetic angle, calling it a learning opportunity.
The Dean of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Charles Whitaker, published a statement of his own, defending the student’s right to report on the world around them and condemning others for pressuring them into apologizing for doing so.
“The coverage by The Daily Northwestern of the protests stemming from the recent appearance on campus by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions was in no way beyond the bounds of fair, responsible journalism,” he wrote. “I am deeply troubled by the vicious bullying and badgering that the students responsible for that coverage have endured for the ‘sin’ of doing journalism.”
“It is naïve, not to mention wrong-headed, to declare, as many of our student activists have, that The Daily staff and other student journalists had somehow violated the personal space of the protestors by reporting on the proceedings, which were conducted in the open and were designed, ostensibly, to garner attention,” he continued.
As for The Daily’s editorial itself, he called it “heartfelt, though not well-considered.”
“I understand why The Daily editors felt the need to issue their mea culpa. They were beat into submission by the vitriol and relentless public shaming they have been subjected to since the Sessions stories appeared,” he said. “I think it is a testament to their sensitivity and sense of community responsibility that they convinced themselves that an apology would effect a measure of community healing.”
The Other Side of the Aisle
Though, not everyone thought the apology was out of line. Some did think The Daily needed to address what happened.
One student said this showed that journalists often “don’t care about people, they care about stories and headlines.”
Reporter Karen Kho pointed out that many reporters were getting upset about this industry-related situation, but don’t speak as much about other problems in the field of journalism, “such the lack of diversity in their newsrooms, declines in public trust, or how reporting can further hurt underrepresented communities.”
Others also pointed out the school’s history when it comes to protests.
What the Students Involved Are Saying
Some of the student journalists involved in the story also spoke about the events.
Troy Closson, the paper’s editor in chief, published a Twitter thread partially justifying the editorial but also acknowledging over-correction.
He added that balancing this role with the knowledge that the paper has historically not treated students of color well has been a challenge. Closson said he appreciates people raising their voices about their coverage and said the staff is learning to navigate the space of being student journalists.
Boyle spoke to The Washington Post about what was going through his mind as he took photos at the protests.
“These are my peers, these are people that I might have class with,” he told the paper. “If something happened, God forbid, I was the only camera that was non-police-owned in that area, to my knowledge.”
On Twitter, he said that he has reflected a lot on what it means to be a journalist.
See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (The New York Times) (Chicago Tribune)
Veteran Burial Problem: Why Veteran Cemeteries Are Running Out of Space & What’s Next
Over the last few decades, veteran cemeteries throughout the US have been facing an ongoing problem — they’ve been running out of space. In an effort to address this, the US Department of Veterans Affairs, specifically the National Cemetery Administration, has been working to acquire new land to expand current national cemeteries and establish new ones.
They’ve also launched the Urban Initiative and the Rural Initiative in order to improve accessibility for veterans living in densely populated cities and in more rural parts of the country, respectively. But the challenges don’t end there. As it stands, national cemeteries are still at risk of running out of room within the next twenty to thirty years. And as a result, new changes are being proposed; changes that would impact eligibility requirements and potentially limit which veterans can and cannot be buried below ground. Watch the video to find out more.
BART Apologizes After a Man Was Handcuffed for Eating a Sandwich on a Train Platform
- Protestors have staged “eat ins” and spoken out on social media in support of a BART rider who was handcuffed and cited for eating a sandwich on a train platform, a violation of CA law.
- BART’s General Manager noted that the man refused to provide identification, and “cursed at and made homophobic slurs at the officer who remained calm throughout the entire engagement.”
- But still, the official apologized to the rider and said the transit agency’s independent police auditor is investigating the incident.
A transit official in California’s Bay Area apologized Monday after a video showed a man waiting to catch a train being handcuffed and cited for eating a breakfast sandwich on the station platform.
In a now-viral video posted to Facebook Friday, a police officer is seen detaining a man who has since been identified as 31-year-old Steve Foster. Foster was heading to work around 8 a.m. on Nov. 4 when an officer stopped to tell him he was breaking the law by eating on the platform.
According to Bay Area Transit Authority (BART) General Manager Bob Powers, before the video starts, the officer asked the passenger not to eat and decided to move forward with a citation when he continued to do so.
The video shows the officer holding onto Foster’s backpack as the two argue. “You are detained and you’re not free to go,” the officer says.
“You came up here and fucked with me,” Foster responds. “You singled me out, out of all these people.”
“You’re eating,” the officer says.
“Yeah, so what,” Foster responds.
“It’s against the law,” the officer says. “I tried to explain that to you. It’s a violation of California law. I have the right to detain you.”
The officer threatens to send Foster to jail for resisting arrest and eventually calls for backup. Foster’s friend, who filmed the encounter, tells the officer that there are no signs in the station that say passengers can’t eat on the platform.
“Why is there a store downstairs selling food if we’re not allowed to eat up here?” she says.
“Where is the sign up here that says we can’t eat on the platform? We know we can’t eat on the train.”
Foster continues to eat and tell the officer he does this every morning. The officer continues to hold onto the backpack to detain Foster for refusing to give his name. Foster becomes more frustrated and throws profanities at him.
“You don’t get no pussy at home. I know you ain’t. When was the last time you got your dick sucked? I know it’s been a while,” Foster tells the officer before asking him to call his supervisor.
“I just missed two trains because of your fa**ot ass. You fucking fa*. Ask your momma what my name is,” he also tells the officer.
“Show me a sign where it says I cant eat on the platform,” Foster says, but before the officer can respond he shouts in his face. “Shut up n***a. You ain’t got shit to say and now you feel stupid n***a…You nerd. You fucking nerd. Let my bag go.”
After a few minutes, three other officers arrive and handcuff Foster before walking him down the platform and through the station. One of the officers then tells him he is being held because he matches the description of someone who was creating a disturbance on the platform.
In a second video, the officer tells Foster’s friend he was initially responding to a report of a possibly intoxicated woman on the platform, whom he never found. That’s when he spotted Foster and let him know there is no eating on BART. He also tells the friend there are in fact signs that say there is no eating in the paid area of BART.
Foster was given a citation for the infraction and released after providing his name to the police.
After the footage circulated across social media, (in some cases, shorter edited clips) many users and BART riders expressed their frustration.
I'm just tired of these guys abusing thier badge when there's real criminals out there he wants to spend his time and tax payers money on a guy eating a sandwich. BART Police officer McCormick should be removed from wearing a badge— RAIDERS (@alexberrios214) November 11, 2019
The incident even sparked protests and “eat ins” over the weekend, with more scheduled to continue. One Facebook event for this coming Saturday is called “Eat a McMuffin on BART: They Can’t Stop Us All.”
According to BART Communications Director Alicia Trost, eating is prohibited in the “paid area” of the transit stations, meaning once passengers pass through the ticketing gate. The specific California law is PC 640 (b) (1): “Eating or drinking in or on a system facility or vehicle in areas where those activities are prohibited by that system.”
Though many social media users thought Foster was arrested for the incident, the BART spokesperson clarified that he was only issued a citation for eating. The spokesperson said Foster was “lawfully handcuffed when he refused to provide his identification,” and added that “the court will determine level of fine he should pay.”
Similar statements were provided on social media to users who had questions about the situation.
We have confirmed w/ the Deputy Chief he was not arrested. He was cited for eating which is a violation of state law. No matter how you feel about eating on BART, the officer saw someone eating and asked him to stop, when he didn't he was given a citation.— SFBART (@SFBART) November 8, 2019
We asked police why he was handcuffed and was told the individual was refusing to provide his name which is needed for citation and was lawfully handcuffed.— SFBART (@SFBART) November 8, 2019
We've captured the social media posts and delivered them to the Independent Police Auditor. https://t.co/RmDCiQ3RyW
In his Monday statement, General Manager Powers said, “As a transportation system, our concern with eating is related to the cleanliness of our stations and system.”
“This was not the case in the incident at Pleasant Hill station on Monday,” he continued.
He noted that Foster, “refused to provide identification, cursed at and made homophobic slurs at the officer who remained calm through out the entire engagement,” but added that context of the situation was important.
“The officer was doing his job but context is key. Enforcement of infractions such as eating and drinking inside our paid area should not be used to prevent us from delivering on our mission to provide safe, reliable, and clean transportation. We have to read each situation and allow people to get where they are going on time and safely.”
“I’m disappointed [by] how the situation unfolded. I apologize to Mr. Foster, our riders, employees, and the public who have had an emotional reaction to the video,” he added.
In response to the statement, Foster told KGO–TV “I’m definitely upset, mad, a little frustrated, angry about it.”
“I hope they start focusing on stuff that actually matters like people shooting up dope, hopping the BART, people getting stabbed.” He also told other news outlets that he believes he was singled out because of his race and want the officer who cuffed him to be disciplined.
Foster said he is looking into his legal options as of now. According to Powers, the transit agency’s independent police auditor is investigating the incident.